If there was one R&B artist for whom the neo-soul categorization seemed limiting, it was Philadelphia native Bilal. None of his recordings resembled the sycophantic worship of soul artists who thrived in the '60 and '70s, and it wasn't just because his voice — classically trained, capable of singing opera in seven languages — was so unique. While some inspirations were detectable, his recordings were wholly modern and became increasingly creative. His individuality led to being dropped from a major label, and he went several years without releasing any solo material. Through evangelism from his peers and word of mouth from his early fans, Bilal gained an insatiable following and was supported by sympathetic independent labels, where he was finally able to thrive creatively.
Bilal Sayeed Oliver came up in Germantown, a northwest neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. A deep interest in jazz was fostered by his father, who took him to the city's clubs. Singing eventually became more than an interest. He attended New York's New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, where he received voice training, as well as training in jazz and big-band arrangements.
Grenique's Black Butterfly, a 1999 release on Motown, was the first major album to feature Bilal's vocals; he contributed to three songs. The following year, he established a deep connection to hip-hop by appearing on Common's Like Water for Chocolate and Guru's third Jazzmatazz album. These recordings led him into the Soulquarians, a rotating collective of collaborators who included Common, Jay Dee (aka J Dilla), the Roots' Ahmir Thompson, D'Angelo, Erykah Badu, Mos Def, Q-Tip, and Raphael Saadiq within its ranks.